The End Of Paying Your Dues?

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I left college in 2004 we were right in the middle of a shift in how a “career” was defined. There was still this prevailing wisdom that you would find an entry level job at a good company, slowly work your way up over the course of decades from junior level to senior level to management. It would take a long time, but in return you got the stability of a steady paycheck, health care, and a pension.

This mentality was prevalent at the internships I had throughout college, in the teachings I received in college, and in my engineering job that I worked after I graduated. At the same time, technology was taking over the workplace, and it was very clear to me that my generation was much better at using this technology, so the idea of “paying your dues” when you’re better at the critical components of your job perplexed/confused/frustrated/angered me.

In a fiery rant back in 2007 that flooded my inbox with nasty emails, I wrote about my experience:

An engineering student from a top school knows the ins and outs of every latest and greatest piece of software available. All of the places I worked it was OUR generation that was teaching the older generation more efficient uses of THEIR technology. Subsequently, our most skilled ProENGINEER (3D Modeling software) and Minitab (statistical modeling software) professionals were the students who just arrived fresh from college. The students just spent years learning from some of the best professors in the world, pushing each other to learn the limits of the software for challenging exams. When they arrived at our company, they suddenly realized that they were leaps and bounds ahead of the veteran engineers.

In my head I foresaw a war between old school and new school as this all played out over decades, a messy transition to the future while the last of the prior generations slowly left the workforce. Then a funny thing happened: it all kind of worked itself out. The recession of 2008 blew up any notion of the idea that you could work for a single large company for a lifetime and be rewarded for it. You could no longer “hide” within a company without doing any real, useful work. Companies didn’t have time to train and groom someone for 5 years. The jobs and the people that remained were left because they produced. In Albany we have a lot of government and academic jobs, and both of those previously thought of safe havens haven’t been immune to budget cuts and job losses either.

Now, when a company does make a hire, they need that hire to come in and produce meaningful work almost right away…regardless of age. It’s too costly not to. Which, inadvertently, has sort of eliminated the “ageism” I felt my generation was subject to.

Last week as I was writing about my excitement for the next generation to hit the workforce, it dawned on me: they might not be subject to the “pay your dues” mentality. Companies hiring them need them to do real work right away, which aligns well with them because they want to do meaningful work. How exciting is that?

4 comments on The End Of Paying Your Dues?

  1. Rob says:

    Interesting thoughts, but I think there’s a really big downside that is related to this too – many companies who previously would have invested heavily in their employees long term success, training and professional development now just want people who can do the work from the off. They have mental requirements like 5 years experience of a technology that’s only 3 years old, or experienced hires but entry level pay.

    I’ve got recently retired family members with no degrees who worked their way up from the bottom in various organisations and ultimately ended up as C-level execs, department leaders or heads of teams. These same teams and groups now won’t even take on filing clerks & administration assistants (photocopying bitches) at the lowest level that don’t have degrees or experience. I think that’s insane. I know hardly anyone with just a single undergraduate degree – many friends have masters, doctorates or multiple degrees and I know how frustrated some of them have been – I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people with only a high school education out there right now.

    It turns universities into trade-schools churning out employees to meet job specs and completely does away with the loyalty companies previously had to their employees, investing in their future & career progression. It now looks a lot more like “every man for himself” than a professional family and that’s a bit sad.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Absolutely, there are A LOT of downsides to the new way of doing things, and a lot of people unfairly hurt (I particularly feel for anyone 10-15 years younger than me who have a lot of career left but entered the working world with a completely different set of rules). I wanted to focus on this one particular thing that always bothered me as a twenty-something employee, but in totality things might not necessarily be better. These kids graduating have all sorts of disadvantages compared to someone 10/20/30 years ago.

      I’d prefer both things to be true: companies that do their best to take care of their employees while also enabling them do meaningful work right away. That’s how we try to run our business, but we’re just a super tiny small business, and not representative at all of larger companies. Not sure I have answers there, and if I thought I did I’d need a few thousand words to sort them out 🙂

  2. This is interesting, it parallels with something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, the future leadership of big companies (Fortune 1000 sized companies) in say 25 years is going to be vastly different than it is today, a discussion for another day…. I think there have been two really big changes, as I see it of course, (i) the meaning of experience has changed, and (ii) expectations from a job/career have changed.

    Yesterday, in theory, one found an area of interest or proficiency and pursued it, presumably got better at it over time. Learning what works and what doesn’t, how to become an expert in your field. This has without a doubt changed. Experience has become incredibly multi-faceted, there’s technical chops, using Office, knowing what “tools” work to aid in your profession. I think that’s pretty clear, and the simple aspect of most jobs these days. Then there’s the more specific subtle nuances from one technical solution to another, or diving really deep into a specific application, or how it can integrate with another solution that only hands on experience will provide – this expertise separates the good, from the great and the mediocre from the all-stars. This is a HUGE factor, someone may be certified in XYZ application, but really not have a clue how to apply this expertise effectively. I’m not an expert in qualifying the levels of proficiency but I have noticed one factor that has been 100% accurate in determining if someone has the chops or not, watching them use a computer. This, more than anything else has been the single easiest identifier of those who REALLY know, vs those who sort of know. Specific technical jobs typically have a hands on portion to the interview, which will identify this, but less technically specific jobs that still require a deep technical knowledge and level of experience have not gotten good at identifying this highly valuable factor. Watching someone use a computer has worked 100% of the time with a hundred or so “technical” people I’ve worked with, for, or near. Someone who is naturally curious seems to be a trait that accompanies this skill, though that’s an easy comment to make that can mean different things to different people.

    Then there’s the soft skills, those will likely remain similar, though the medium and frequency of communications will undoubtedly continue to change. Soft skills typically develop with real world experience, developing a personal style. This also parallels with a developing network, which is also a soft skill that has changed, and typically rewards those with real experience. You need to do ABC project now, well I worked with a great ABC implementation company a few years ago, you just saved weeks of research to find a qualified vendor/solution. Knowing what success looks like, and how to get there is HUGE win for any company or team. Those soft skills cannot be faked, but they surely have been sped up. Again being naturally curious helps an awful. Point being, with the right person at year 1 of their career they will likely have far less developed soft skills than the same person 10 years into their career. Having seen good, and bad in this sense, this is a HUGE factor in determining professional success. Time is also not a guaranty in developing these skills, another hard one to define with a checkbox or learn in an interview.

    Now onto where I think it gets really interesting, job and career expectations, this goes both ways, from the employee to the employer and the employer to the employee. Millenials are an odd bunch by corporate america standards, there are fringe members of the generation ahead of millenials who have similar values, but it REALLY dominates the millenial mind set. Success is not climbing the corporate ladder, success is not having a big house, flashy car, 2.1 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. Success cannot be classified in any conventional way to many millenials, success is an individual journey that cannot be segmented into the default buckets. This really challenges the conventions companies use to attract and retain talent. Take a look at sites like Glassdoor, the big conventional companies of yesterday do not fare well with attracting millenial talent, this is going to be a BIG problem in the next decade. I say problem, it’s really an opportunity. Why is disruption so rampant? Millenials want things to be to their liking, and will make it that way if they can’t find it. Old big companies cannot respond quickly enough due to a myriad of legacy baggage, and more importantly legacy habits. In this way, it makes experience and the need to pay your dues far less of a factor.

    Assuming you’ve navigated to a place where you have a refined skill set, have developed that hard to classify “ability to get it done” level of soft skills, and simply do not want the status quo lifestyle, you very easily can shave decades off the professional path to success. There’s still dues paying, but it is VERY different.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Wow Tim, that was a post in and of itself! Well said all around.

      I love the test of watching someone use a computer. It’s a concept we’ve talked about making a part of our interview process for a variety of reasons, this included. You can learn so much about how someone thinks and how technically literate they are (heck, even how slow they type could be a deal breaker).

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